In Philippians 3, Paul testifies to at least four wide-ranging truths that are necessary if we wish to start living into Jesus’ Sermon-on-the-Mount-life. Contemporary authors like Richard Foster, Dallas Willard, John Ortberg, Marjorie Thompson, Jan Johnson, Tony Jones, Mark Buchanan, and Henri Nouwen have helped me to identify and name these principles.
End over Errors
As I’ve walked with people along this journey into Jesus’ way of life, I’ve noticed that many struggle with a fundamental issue. When they fall and fail (and they frequently do), people tend to get down and discouraged. They can’t stop thinking about how, once again, they’ve fallen short of the life for which they were created. And they begin to think that such a life is only a fairy-tale. It’s a story whose happy ending they’ll never quite reach. They get engrossed in how many times they lost their temper that month, how many mornings they didn’t pray that week, or how many people they didn’t serve that day. It doesn’t matter how many spiritual successes they experienced that month, week, or day. All they can see are the failures. They forget the hits. They forget the runs. All they notice are the errors.
My friend Alice has jumped light years in this regard. We meet monthly for prayer and spiritual coaching. When we began years ago, Alice could only talk about her errors. How she let an unkind word slip again. How she began another day without prayer. The more she talked, the more she despaired. But then we began to explore Paul’s testimony. And one particular line stuck out: But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal… Even Paul admits: Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect… Even Paul still makes errors. But those errors are not his focus. His eyes remain glued instead on the end, the goal, the vision of life he’s found in Jesus Christ. When Paul fails to achieve that vision, he puts that mistake in the past and keeps his focus on the goal. He forgets what is behind—the failures and the falls—and keeps straining and pressing on toward the goal—the unique and exemplary life modeled for us by Jesus. Alice has memorized that line. And these days we spend a lot less time talking about errors and a lot more time talking about the end—the goal toward which she is striving.
Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus write about leadership. One of their most famous observations is that “people move in the direction of their most dominant thought.” Applied to spiritual growth, this principal postulates that if all you think about is your character failures, or your lack of Bible reading, or how you misspent your money, you may actually keep moving in that direction. You may just keep repeating the same mistakes. But if you focus instead on a compelling and positive vision for what your life could be, you will move in that direction.
I’m not suggesting it’s wrong to recognize and acknowledge our errors. Some of the most fruitful spiritual disciplines are those like the Examen which are designed to open our eyes to some of our most glaring weaknesses. The challenge many of us face, however, is a tendency to think only or primarily of those weaknesses. We stare so long at the darkness of our errors that eventually we become blind to anything else. Those who make real progress in any facet of life—athletics, business, or spiritual growth—acknowledge their shortcomings but are not handicapped by them.
As I’ve noted elsewhere, Dallas Willard writes that lasting change in life takes place in three steps summarized by the letters V, I, M. First, we embrace a Vision of the kind of life into which we wish to move. Second, we make an Intentional decision that we’re going to pursue that vision. Third, we determine the Means for living out that vision. The process always begins with vision. And, the process is sustained by vision. I believe this is what Paul reveals from his own life. Paul freely admitted his errors. But those errors did not take up residence in his mind. The primary occupant of his mind was Jesus’ vision for life. Paul forgot what was behind. He left the past in the past. And he just kept straining and striving toward what was ahead. We would do well to do the same.